July 25, 2014
As summer grows long in the tooth and the fresh green leaves of spring begin to display ragged edges, single brooded birds are in their final stages of parenting. For them, the proof of the season is a successful crop of young. There is little or no time for a “do over” at this point. There were three active families performing this role about the grounds at Dollar Lake over the past few weeks and their activities made things interesting. Not being a permanent resident of the place, my observations were separated by long periods of time – which means I was privy only to the middle of each story.
I am not sure, for instance, when the animated pair of Black-capped Chickadees excavated their nest cavity in the birch snag down at lake’s edge. I can only say that they did this at least two weeks before I found them. It takes around 13 days for the eggs to hatch and these birds were already feeding young. The hole was located about 7 feet up near the top of the broken trunk. Since the tree has been long dead, the punky wood made it easy for the “dees” to peck out their hole. It seems an impossible task for such a small billed bird, but a chickadee is a chickado when it comes to cavity creating.
Both parents participated in the feeding and care of their chicks. I never saw the babies, hidden as they were deep within their lair, but can only imagine a full clutch (the average is 7) of hungry mouths were within. Both adult birds maintained a constant stream of caterpillars, moths, and other insects to fill those mouths – popping in for less than 20 seconds before emerging for another food hunt. The trips were spaced about 5 minutes apart and this was all day -every day over the four day period I was about the place.
The first successful picture I took of this activity revealed a parent, which had entered with a beak-full of food, exiting with a bag of poop. Better called a fecal sac, this white blob represents the excrement from one of the young. Urine and feces are contained within a white mucous bag, in the manner of a diaper, and the parents dutifully grab it and deposit someplace far from the nest. This, of course, keeps the nest clean and tidy. In the early stages each baby might put out a dozen of these per day which means a full nest of poopers would generate 60 or more of these offerings daily. Some species actually make a habit of eating this bag (what parents won’t do for their kids). I am not sure if Chickadees do this, but can say that at least on this occasion the bird flew off and dropped it.
Only passerines and woodpeckers do the fecal sac thing – others allow their young to let the poo fly over the edge of the nest. Fortunately (or should I say unfortunately) I did not witness the fecal sacking of the local pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers. These woodpeckers were already feeding full sized young by the time I crossed paths with them on my next northern visit.
Young red-heads, although matching their parents in size, lack the red head and stark black and white patterning of the adults. They are gray-headed, pale-billed, and sport a checkerboard pattern on the white portion of the wings. Traveling from tree to tree, the adults searched for insects as the young birds shadowed them. A symphony of mewing ensued whenever parent and young came together and just before the tidbit was deposited in the young woodpecker’s mouth.
Again, not seeing the earlier stages, I would suspect that the young were approaching their final week of parenting (this takes about one month). Although they probably milked this pandering for another week before the adults gradually put an end to it.
I saw both Red-headed parent birds in action, but only spotted one young at any given time (they were spread out through the canopy). In my final observation of this blog, that being of Pied billed Grebes, I only saw one young with one parent over the course of several weeks.
Earlier in the season, a breeding pair of Grebes constantly made their presence known through eerie vocalizations. Their nest, a floating pad of vegetation, was located somewhere among the cat-tails on the opposite side of the lake. Throughout the day, from early morning to sundown, the male repeatedly wailed with a cuckoo-like “kwop, kwop, kwop” call before his female finally told him to shut the heck up!
A Pied-billed Grebe, accompanied by a single large chick, started showing up close to our dock about a month after the nesting commenced. These birds were silent and shy in the extreme. Because both sexes look alike, and both participate in feeding young, I couldn’t tell which parent was present at any given time. But I can say that only one was present whenever I saw them. The adult would dive under and retrieve water insects and tiny fish to offer to the eager grebe-let. The kid often scrambled about in confusion whenever the adult vanished and eventually took to diving in order to keep up.
Young grebes are startlingly different from their parents. Instead of the somber pale brown, and “pied” beak of the adult the chicks are marked with brown and cream striping which is especially prominent on the head and neck. Patches of rusty red, combined with a pink bill, throw in a bit of color lacking in the final version of the bird. This pattern, found also in coots and gallinules, likely acts like the disruptive painting used on WWI troop ships (we copied nature in this case). It obscures the bird’s outline and makes it harder for the enemy to get a bead on it.
All of this leads me to one stark fact about the apparent lack of success on the part of the Dollar Lake Grebes. A normal clutch would contain 5-7 eggs and a like number of young. Only one chick apparently survived this year. It was being well cared for and would probably make it to full Pied bill status by late summer, but I was left wondering about the fate of its nest mates.
Early one foggy late July morning, after watching the grebes do their thing, my attention was drawn down to a movement under the water lily pads at dockside. A huge snapping turtle poked his head out from under one of the pads, eyed me suspiciously, and then slid beneath the still surface. Having seen this well fed reptile I believe we can answer the mystery of the missing grebe chicks. Disruptive colors do not help when the enemy comes at you from the deep.
July 17, 2014
First the facts. Striped Skunks have an average litter of 6 young. The maximum number in this department is around ten but some have enough nipples to accommodate up to 14 in case of a fertility crisis. Even though the little ones – skunklets we shall call them – can spray some musk at 8 days old they really don’t come into their own until approximately 32 days after birth. A skunklet begins the weaning process at that time, sports his first teeth (funny how these two events happen at the same time, eh?), and is able to “assume the position” and spray.
The critter is fully weaned within 46 days and able to follow mom and his siblings around on feeding expeditions. The whole black & white crew leaves the main den and they begin a life of wandering and temporary housing. Following dutifully behind their mother, a line of miniature skunks presents one of the more endearing sights in nature. Even the most ardent skunk hater has to soften upon viewing this Madeline-like habit (think broad- hatted Parisian school children following a nun).
By way of introduction, this brings me to a closer look at one such skunklet – a hands-on experience you could say. I will admit that what follows is a demonstration of what not to do with an animal of this kind. It is easy to get too panicky about this, but because a low percentage of skunks pose a rabies exposure risk it is sufficient to say that these animals should be seen and not touched. Because this latter statement goes for most wildlife, regardless of disease, it shouldn’t just apply to skunks. Skunks, of course, have a very good method of keeping you away and this problem usually resolves itself.
Unfortunately the little skunk in question somehow got separated from his litter mates and came under the care of a well-meaning friend. I took it as the opportunity it was (yes, mom, I was careful).
Based on the evidence presented earlier this orphan was probably close to that 46 day old mark. It was about the heft of a can of pop. It was (wisely) kept out on the enclosed porch and housed in an overturned box with a simple cutout doorway. Having been in custody for about a week, it was first fed with formula but quickly adjusted to a diet of insects, watermelon, meat scraps and whatever else was available. Mayflies, hatching out by the millions and abundantly available, were a favorite item of fare.
It was difficult to get a good look at the critter because it continually waddled about like a wind-up toy – grunting like a tiny train engine as it probed every corner of the porch. I eventually, and against my better judgment, grabbed the thing and picked it up to examine it closer. Fortunately the little guy did not act on his objection to being restrained other than wiggling about. He did not attempt to bite nor did it spray. My friend mentioned that it did “spray a little” when it was surprised on the previous day, so I opted to put it back down (quickly).
Taking a close gander at even a young skunk brings up a few details worth noting about these members of the weasel family. They are plantigrade animals which walk on the flats of their feet in the manner of bears and humans. The hind feet are fully soled (skunks got soul). Toe walkers, like dogs and cats have relatively small soles by comparison. Although still small at this stage, the claws on the front feet will eventually grow into formidable tools for digging grubs and tearing open garbage bags. Tiny eyes belay poor vision and a large rubbery nose is proof positive that smell plays a primary role inn this animal’s sensory array.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of any skunk is the black and white patterning. It is a feature, in fact, which identifies individuals from each other. No two skunks have the same decor. The contrasting pattern serves as a clear nocturnal warning sign to all potential predators that a ticking musk bomb is afoot. Nearly all skunks have a white nose stripe and a white crown but vary considerably after that point. Some are stripeless while others have a single broad white back stripe. Our tiny skunk had a weak double stripe cascading down the sides and a white tipped tail.
I suppose I could now say that I picked up a live, fully scented skunk and survived the encounter without needing a tomato juice bath or enduring a series of shots. We don’t need to mention in the future that it was a defenseless little beast with no life experience.
July 9, 2014
Although I should have learned my lesson last year, I decided on an early morning visit to the Beaver Lodge at Conner’s Creek. The lodge is on the property of the Edison Boat Club and sits along the bank of the old canal that once serviced the power plant and feeds into the Detroit River. I’ve been to the place many times over the past few years to check up on my old castoral friends.
Beavers are nocturnal, and these urban beavers are especially so during the summer. They are often daytime active during the fall and this has proven the best – and so far, only – time to observe them under the light of the sun. My recent effort was to see if the pair had any new young and to see these little guys when they were still small. I thought it worth the time to come right at sun rise before they, or as they, retreated to the daytime comfort of their lodge. It didn’t work last year, and it didn’t work this year. It won’t work next year either, but I’ll probably try it again anyway. My effort did not go totally unrewarded, however.
Here, surrounded by the sounds of sirens, brick buildings, power lines, and the abandoned fields of an old cityscape, wildlife abounds. Sitting rock still on a bright morning (moving occasionally only to sip on my coffee) I was relatively undetectable by wild passersby.
A Black-crowned Night Heron stopped in for some fishing (see above). Perching on a grapevine wrapped cable, this individual was topping off his night with a regular visit to one of his old haunts before roosting for the day. The appearance of a lanky Green Heron (see below), landing uncomfortably on one of the power lines, signaled the heron dayshift. This bird opted to forgo the canal and continued north – probably to the small city park located on the Detroit River.
Barn and Tree Swallows flittered past, along with the ever-present and ever-noisy Red-winged Blackbirds. The semi-submerged telephone pole, which forms the roof of the beaver lodge at its dry end, served as a sun porch for several large map turtles. These ponderous reptiles slowly made their way up onto the log one by one. At one point two of them sat face to face as perfect mirror images of each other before a third broke up the symmetry with an off-center entrance.
All of this was entertaining, but from my point of view, however, the most interesting visitors of the day crawled up on the bank literally at my feet. Starting with one very cautious little muskrat making its way into the white clover patch to my right, a total of five of the little beasts ended up munching on the greenery. The grass was a bit shaggy and it was tall enough to nearly cover their tiny dark outlines as they grazed.
The litter issued from the beaver lodge and represented the latest offspring of a family of muskrats that has been sharing the beaver abode for quite a few years. The two creatures are famous for such cohabitation.
The muskrats in this herd were quite young – probably about a month old based on their size and general stupidity. They “spotted” and smelled me several times. True to their rodent nature, they would sit upright in order to assess the large coffee-reeking form looming over them. Eyesight is not one of their better attributes but still they attempted to fix their beady eyes on their mystery observer. A few even bolted for the cover of the grapevines after perceiving danger, but still they returned. I guess the power of fresh cloverleaf overcomes fear. This food over flight response is why most little muskrats never make it to adult ‘rathood, by the way. Adult muskrats have the sense to disappear after they sense danger. All they have to do is survive one close call in this whack-a-muskrat world in order to get enough predator-sense to continue.
At this stage of life, muskrats lack their full covering of shiny guard hairs. Instead they appear to be clothed in fuzzy pajamas. They are near-prefect miniatures of the adults, but their rounded heads betray their close ancestry to Meadow Voles (aka Meadow Mice). They are, in fact, also close cousins to the beaver themselves. So, in a way I was able to have a near-beaver experience on this trip. You have to admit, they are cute by any standard – even if they represented a second choice to this beaver watcher.
July 1, 2014
When the small Redbud tree/bush in my backyard sprouted thorns, I was delighted. Redbuds, known for their lavender spring flowers and symmetrical heart-shaped leaves, are not known for their thorns at all. In fact, these plants never possess real thorns – their branches and leaves are as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Some individuals do support mobile thorns from time to time and my pitiful little example tree was just such an individual. This, of course, I should explain.
The “mobile thorns” in question are insects called treehoppers. Specifically they are called Two-marked Tree Hoppers. One look at the adult coloration should provide enough explanation for the name (they have not one, not four, but exactly two yellow spots on backs). These critters, if not having a Masters degree in camouflage do have a two year Associates in the Arts. They avoid predator detection by pretending to be thorns instead of the succulent little juice boxes that they are. This deception would probably be more effective without the two-spot decor calling out for attention, but I suspect this was due to some ancient tree-hopper union specification and that I should not judge. Their ploy is good enough to work most of the time whereas I can’t always say that about my attempt to be a normal human being.
This species has a tall flat projection coming off of their thorax that performs the role of a “picker”. The outline of the head and wing covers, neatly tapers along the lines of the base of this pseudo thoracic thorn. The legs, all six of ‘em, can be tucked out of sight so that the edge of the body armor can merge seamlessly with the branch.
Behavior has a big part in pulling this fakery off. Thorns don’t move. Even though these tree hoppers can walk and fly, they chose not to do much of either. Instead they perch motionless on the plant stems most of the time just like the real thing they are trying to imitate. They orient themselves on the steams so that the points are directed downward, or inward, and when perching in group they all orient in the same manner (lo to the little fake thorn that chooses to point the other way).
This inanimate act, like the camouflage itself, is not perfect. When approached, or touched, Two-marked Tree Hoppers will shimmy to the opposite side of the twig and will continue to do so until a.) the threat is gone or b.) they are eaten by a predator who has at least an Associates degree in camouflage detection (or fake thorn detection) or c). they attempt to fly away and are eaten by a predator with only a 3rd grade education.
Those females who survive, and are lucky enough to mate with a male thorn, lay their eggs just under the surface of the twig using a saw-like ovipositor (egg laying tube) to insert her cargo. The nymphs, looking like the cicada relatives that they are, emerge and seek out the tender leaf stems where they insert their needle-like mouths and drink of the plant’s sap. It takes about a month to achieve adulthood, so these non-thorny young’uns seek the underside of the leaf for protection. They have a small nubbin of a fake thorn but this is not enough to be considered a thorn except by the dumbest of predators. A few were tended by ants which were milking them for the honeydew secretions (see below).
It is interesting to note that the nymphs line up just like their adult counterparts, even though it is for a different reason. The nymphs line up along the mid-rib of the leaf like Kindergartners queuing up for lunch (except that they don’t argue amongst themselves as to who is the line leader or the caboose or who took cuts or…)
When the magic day comes, and the nymph is ready for adulthood, they shed their final skin and walk out into the world with a glorious fake thorn. At first they are pinkish white but this soon darkens into the purplish black of maturity.
You’d think that all this plant sucking would harm the host Redbud (they also feed on Black Walnut, Shagbark Hickory, Willow, and numerous other trees) but most trees are man enough to take it. My little Redbud is taking its cargo of thorns like the little man it is. Well, actually it is not a little man but because the thorns on it are not real either, we can pretend.
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